‘Drunken Indians,’ ‘poor Indians’ and other stereotypes

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 31, 2012

Globetrotting coffee companion Jack Popjes reminded me recently of a line famously associated with Mark Twain: “The trouble with the world is . . . that they know so many things that aren’t so.”

Jack, author, speaker and longtime colleague of mine, was referring to a concern many of us share: the temptation to dismiss others with stereotypes rather than to get to know them for the beautiful people they really are.

In addition to his lengthy first-hand relationship with the Canela people, a remote, marginalized community in Brazil’s interior, he’s also former director of Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada, one of the partners within Wycliffe Global Alliance, an NGO assisting in respect-based minority-language projects around the world.

In his response to my Oct. 10 column on the priority of respect, he shared the following story:

When my family emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada in 1950, I was 12 years old and thought I knew all about cowboys and Indians. I had read books, listened to radio plays and had seen movies. My head was full of knowledge about cowboys and Indians.

But then I met some cowboys, and later some Indians, and suddenly I realized what my head was full of was not knowledge, but garbage. It’s the things I know “that aren’t so” that Mark Twain warned about that cause enormous amounts of upset and misery in human relationships for most people in the world, not just 12-year-old immigrant boys.

Before I started to live and serve in the Canela native community in Brazil, I had been told all about “those thieves and drunks” by people who lived 70 kilometres away and had seen only a dozen or so Canelas out of the many hundreds that lived in the village.

We lived among the Canela for over 20 years and only once was something stolen from us. The chief made such a fuss the article was returned to us within hours. Only a few times did we notice anyone even slightly drunk, and then that person received a public scolding and shaming from the elders council. We respected the people and their culture and they respected us.

A few years ago, we returned to visit after a 20-year absence. When we had first met the Canelas we had to introduce many of them to the concept of the pencil. Our Canela colleague had a baby about the time we left. The baby had grown up, had graduated from high school and was on the way to university to study medicine, wanting to come back to the village as a doctor.  

My wife and I have lived under the “missionary” label for over 45 years. It seems much of my writing and speaking is focused on bringing my readers and audiences to a point where they know enough truth to engender respect for the people I talk about. But we’re still struggling with ignorance and disrespect from the general public.

Thanks, Jack, for this account. It sounds like those folks who lived in the surrounding towns were the real losers in all this, blinded as they were by their stereotypes. If only they’d taken the opportunity to get to know some real Canela folks over a cup of coffee! (For Jack’s story-a-week blog, go to jackpopjes.com.)

Not all stereotypes are of this mean-spirited type, of course. Some demeaning stereotypes come packaged in the pretty wrappings of Hollywood’s “Noble Savage,” or in academia’s misguided patronizing practices toward First Nations students wrongly deemed incapable of earning their grades the usual way – students who really are smart enough to earn their grades fair and square just like all other motivated students.

Then there’s the label, “those poor Indians.” I’ll close for now with this story:

Some years ago I was attending the funeral at Morley of one of my longtime heroes, Hanson Twoyoungmen, a Stoney Nakoda cowboy and community elder admired by all who knew him. He was also a guitar-strumming evangelist who helped many of his rodeo buddies, both First Nation and non-First Nation, break free from their addictions.

The small country church was so packed that there was standing-room-only outside on the lawn. I was among those standing outside, listening over the PA system to the tributes that were being heaped on my friend by respected ranchers and First Nations leaders from all over Alberta.

Standing near me was a young non-aboriginal couple I didn’t recognize. I soon learned from them that they had travelled down from northern Alberta where they were doing some kind of religious work. They just had to tell me that, as soon as they “heard there were Indians down here,” they felt “burdened to come down and help those poor Indians!”


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page